Six weeks ago I started a project: Understand the news better.
Was I able to overcome the challenge of comprehending stories that spanned diverse topics, contained specialized vocabulary, were written for advanced readers, and often covered depressing subject matter?
The answer: Yes! The project was a success!
Highlights of the Process
I studied in two three-week phases.
For the first three weeks, my routine consisted of:
- Listening to 45 minutes of news a day, from several news sources
- Transcribing a 150- to 250-word article
- Reading one article a day “intensely”
- Learning 10 to 15 new words a day and drilling them
- Reading several news articles “extensively”
For the last three weeks, I made some adjustments, including:
- Cutting my free listening down to 30 minutes a day
- Gisting about five news articles a day
- Stopping intensive reading and stopped learning new vocab
- Studying a German college textbook
- Reading news articles for 15 to 20 minutes a day
My goal was purposely vague: To feel more “comfortable” with the news.
With that goal in mind, I started seeing results within the first couple weeks. Something a lot of us forget–myself included–is how hard it is to enter a conversation when you don’t know what people are talking about. I’m a native English speaker, but if I were to turn on a soap opera like “Days of Our Lives” right now, I’d be completely lost.
Me: “Who’s Kayla? What motorcycle crash? Why is that guy wearing an eye patch? Why is that woman so mad?”
Other people in the room: “Shh.”
It wasn’t that different when it came to German news. Before, when I tried to listen to the news, I didn’t know a lot about Pegida or the Greece debt crisis, so I didn’t follow what was going on. I had assumed it was simply a matter of not having the German, but I don’t think that was the case; as soon as I caught up on the stories, I was able to follow along, even if I didn’t catch every word.
Okay, if I weren’t a language blogger, being “comfortable” would be good enough for me to call the project a success. But that’s a little lame since I know you guys would probably like something a hair more objective.
So I gave myself a mini-test on the first five short Newsticker articles I found at the website Bild that weren’t excessively sad or tragic. Then I read them and determined:
- I understood two of the articles word for word.
- I could get the main idea and gist of all five articles.
- I identified the main idea of three out of five articles from the headline alone; for two articles I had to read the article itself to grasp the idea.
- I knew 411 out of 425 vocabulary words–97% of the words.
Here’s what my ReadLang page looked like with the text of that test, with the words I didn’t know defined and marked up:
I also gave myself a final transcription test from one of the only non-sad articles from this day of slow German news: a story about a possible vaccine against Ebola. Here’s what it looked like:
I had a few mistakes, but all in all I think I did decent. The article had some stuff I had never seen before, like the German spelling of Gabon (“Gabun”) and the word for preparation/product/specimen (“Präparat”). And I made a stupid mistake mixing up “das” with “dass.” But all in all I handled a C1-level article with light medical terminology pretty well.
Okay, I’m obviously not a German media expert now, and it’s difficult to quantify exactly how much better I got. But I can tell I made real improvement in six weeks.
I’m going to go back and work with different texts again, such as books and sitcoms. The great thing is that I can work news into my overall routine. Just like my dad used to sit at the breakfast table reading the newspaper, I can pull up Der Spiegel on my phone and browse the news while I’m eating my Cheerios.
Putting in this six weeks of effort has allowed me to make news a part of my day, and it can be worked into any routine I do pretty seamlessly now.
If you’re looking to try a news-based routine yourself, here are some things to keep in mind:
- There’s no shame in watching or reading easy news. In fact, sometimes I’d start the day with kids news to get familiar with the stories, and then when I listed to grown-up news later, I had no difficulty following along.
- If you’re not currently understanding the news at all, one possible reason is that you’re just not familiar with the subjects being discussed. Watch and read the news for a couple days, looking up the words you don’t know, and you might be surprised at how much you’ll then be able to understand.
- Transcription is obviously a good test of your spelling, but it’s also a great way to identify issues with grammar. If you see recurring grammar-based mistakes in your transcriptions, then you know exactly what you have to review.
Also, a couple people have made the very valid point that news is often depressing and sad. With some of the awful news coming out of Germany lately, I knew exactly what they were talking about.
I do think the media tends to cherry pick the most sensational, most tragic, and most horrific stories because those get people’s attention. And the media also tends to wallow, milking all the emotion out of a story.
But at the same time, this project made me realize I can’t cover my ears and shut my eyes. If I’m trying to learn a culture, I have to know its stories–both good and bad, both happy and sad. To know the people, I have to know what they’re talking about at the water cooler and what’s on their minds.
Now I feel like I can do that better.